It takes a village: Experiencing the whole Airman concept at play with Operation Allies Welcome

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire
  • 137th Special Operations Wing

I recently deployed to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, in support of Operation Allies Welcome. I spent a month helping manage any and every issue that came through the single phone assigned to our village under Task Force Liberty.

Deploying with around 20 Airmen from a modest Guard base of about 1,200, we expected that some of us would be doing our regular Air Force job just in a new place, or maybe we would be handling supplies that needed to be distributed to the Afghan guests who would be transiting through the base.

I had hoped as a public affairs specialist with the 137th Special Operations Wing (SOW) that I might be able to dedicate time covering our volunteer Airmen and the impact they were making.

Well, I definitely ended up working in a public engagement role. But in this role, it was the audience engaging me. Fortunately, I only had three jobs in the week and a half it took to receive my permanent assignment. Some worked a new job every week! From filling in to help increase numbers demanded for a specific task or being tasked due to a need for a unique skill set, we all played a part in creating a temporary home for Afghan guests.

My permanent role ended up organizationally under the commander, referred to as the mayor, as part of the support staff for a block of dormitories called Village 2. I worked as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the dispatch desk. Anything and everything — from someone in another village calling to get a phone number, to a village guest walking up to the desk asking us to find their lost luggage, to a nurse needing an ambulance — was tasked through us.

Every day, I saw the whole Airman concept on display in the most unexpected moments. Most of us were deployed with very little understanding of what a full-scale humanitarian effort could (and would) demand. We naively expected systems and people to be in place to guide us once we arrived, but the reality was we were the ones creating the systems. Sometimes they stuck, sometimes they didn’t and we would have to completely dismantle and recreate a new system the next day. Through it all, we were able to handle everything thrown at us.

I worked alongside ammo troops who handled urgent medical emergencies despite language barriers and panicked family members. Another ammo troop became the defacto immigration expert for all villages and worked with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and volunteer nongovernmental organizations. In my village alone, aircraft maintainers were covering supply, a command post Airman handled specialty item sales and distribution for thousands of people, and a logistics readiness NCO set up the only infectious disease isolation dorm for the entire task force.

We all worked together as we tried to create a seamlessly running machine. We stumbled, encountering many obstacles that never seemed to smooth out, but we continually made it to the finish line every day.

For me, the most redeeming part of my experience was seeing the whole Airman concept at work. At every rank, we made sure to execute our mission to take care of the village guests, but also made sure to take care of each other.

I tried to take any spare time I had to visit Village 2 teams away from the mayor’s cell – the isolation dorm team, the secured-dorm managers, and the supply Airmen – and learn about their duties and the challenges they faced. The moments I spent alongside them and their work helped me better execute my role in dispatch, and it also helped me see the big picture of what all of the moving parts in our village entailed.

The heart and dedication that Airmen put into this overall operation was as humbling to me as it was motivational. I loved going to work, despite the obstacles I knew we would encounter throughout the day, because of the way we worked together to get through any challenge.

It was bittersweet for me when my tour ended, and I think most in the military feel that way when it’s time to leave the team you were a part of under challenging conditions.

The month I was deployed seemed closer to a year. In the short time I was gone, a major modification in how we are going to start mobilizing had filtered down to our Wing from Air Force Special Operations Command. As a SOW, we were building “mission sustainment teams” (MST) to bring Airmen with a variety of skill sets together to create a sustained livable environment and independently support operations in austere locations.

Sound familiar?

The experience I had with Operation Allies Welcome showed me how tightly a group of Airmen could bond while building something out of nothing. I know creating small teams on base and having them train together will set our Guard Airmen up for success because we will be developing our team’s technical skill sets and abilities alongside the resiliency needed to help each other through adversity.

When it comes to real-world deployments down the line, I believe this intentional training will be the key to making that cohesion work down range. In public affairs, we rely heavily on subject matter experts for important knowledge to have when covering a story. In New Jersey, I found myself wishing several times over to have an expert available when immediate decisions outside of my expertise and that of those around me needed to be made.

Relying on those experts to bolster the mission sustainment training will pay off in dividends when teams are working under pressure. Knowing how each component of the MST will impact the other (like a perimeter security group needing lighting that is provided by a generator team, which cannot work without fuel from another team) and knowing the daily-changing obstacles that those components face, will allow NCOs to anticipate roadblocks and make informed decisions to help their team contribute to the big picture. I’ve seen it happen, and I know we can succeed.